Dumb Witness (Agatha Christie)

  • First published: UK: Collins, July 1937; USA: Dodd Mead, 1937, as Poirot Loses a Client

My review

Fairly standard Christie, with a generic village setting, an old woman who dies a natural death (yellow atrophy of the liver) which may be murder, her various wills, her impoverished and unscrupulous relations; humour provided by her singularly irritating companion, who is not so much amusing as nauseating, and the ghastly spiritualist sisters who see the phosphorescent halo around the victim’s head on the night of her death. Poirot’s investigation consists of interviewing, in the Q. and A. form; this dull method may explain the dullness of his wits in tumbling to the significance of the brooch. Although the murderer is poorly concealed, the method is very ingenious, but the ingenuity is rather negated by the murderer’s hammering a nail into the stairs outside an occupied room.

Blurb (UK)

If it hadn’t been for me, old Monsieur Poirot would never have solved this case.

Bob – the not so dumb witness!

Blurb (US)

It was a strange letter, veiled in mystery and inspired by fear – but stranger yet, Poirot received it fifty-nine days after the writer’s death!  Fifty-nine days too late, but it embarked Hercule Poirot on his most thrilling case…with a dead woman as his client.

No one in the little country town of Market Basing was particularly shocked at the death of little Miss Arundell.  After all, she was over seventy, and had been in delicate health for some time.  It did seem odd that none of her own flesh and blood were even mentioned in her will, but the whole thing probably would have soon been forgotten if the intrepid Poirot had not found this mysterious posthumous letter waiting for him on his breakfast tray.  The fact that his client was already dead only increased his sense of responsibility and urged him on through the maze of hidden clues and suspicious circumstances surrounding Miss Arundell’s supposedly natural death.  The strange behaviour of the old lady’s terrier pup; a bit of thread clinging to the top stair; the phenomenon of the halo; all these were soon seized upon by Poirot’s quick imagination and eventually led him to the startling solution of this extraordinary affair.

A full-length Christie with Poirot in top form!

Contemporary reviews

The Times (6th July 1937): Miss Christie, however, is far too subtle to disclose her criminal prematurely and knows to an inch how far to draw a red herring across the trail.  This new adventure of Poirot and Hastings begins with Miss Arundell’s determination to consult a detective.  By an accident her letter only reaches Poirot some weeks after her death.  Why he suspects murder and how the dog Bob, the “Dumb Witness” of the title, helps him to its discovery make up an excellent story in the best Christie vein.

Times Literary Supplement (John Davy Hayward, 10th July 1937): It is not at all easy, as the experienced reader knows, to catch M. Poirot out; but it is good fun to trip him up, when one can, on trivial details.  Thus, almost at the end of Mrs. Christie’s new detective story, Poirot, in his most sententious mood, turns to his friend, Hastings, with the remark: “Our concern is not with the dead but with the living,” when the reader knows perfectly well that the reverse is true.  For one of the cardinal points of M. Poirot’s latest investigation is that it was carried out on behalf of a dead client.  Miss Arundell, a wealthy spinster, died surrounded by poor relations, three of whom expected to benefit directly and one indirectly from her death.  On her death-bed she did two things: she made a new will, leaving her fortune to a fatuous “companion”; and she wrote a letter, which reached Poirot too late, explaining or rather hinting that she had an uneasy feeling that something was wrong.  Poirot, it seems to us, jumps with almost indecent speed to the conclusion that the unfortunate creature had been murdered, and acts accordingly.

His method of collecting evidence and his preparation of it for the final reconstruction are, as usual, masterly, though the actual cause of Miss Arundell’s death is never very clearly suggested.  Only an extremely astute and well-informed reader would connect it with Dr. Grainger’s comment on a bowl of roses.  One need not be very quick-witted, on the other hand, to detect a weakness in the incident on the stairs outside the companion’s bed room.  Who, in their senses, one feels, would use hammer and nails and varnish in the middle of the night within a few feet of an open door!—a door, moreover, that was deliberately left open at night for observation!  And, incidentally, do ladies wear large brooches on their dressing gowns?  Finally, one might ask why Poirot did not get in touch with Miss Arundell’s married niece immediately after their interrupted conversation at her hotel?  These are small but tantalising points which it would not be worth raising in the work of a less distinguished writer than Mrs. Christie; but they are worth recording, if only as a measure of the curiosity and interest with which one approaches her problems and attempts to anticipate their solutions.

Observer (Torquemada, 18th July 1937): Usually after reading a Poirot story the reviewer begins to scheme for space in which to deal with it adequately; but Dumb Witness, the least of all the Poirot books, does not have this effect upon me, though my sincere admiration for Agatha Christie is almost notorious.  Apart from a certain baldness of plot and crudeness of characterisation which this author seemed to have outgrown years ago, and apart from the fact that her quite pleasing dog has no testimony to give either way concerning the real as opposed to the attempted murder, her latest book betrays two main defects.  In the first place, on receiving a delayed letter from a dead old lady Poirot blindly follows a little grey hunch.  In the second place, it is all very well for Hastings not to see the significance of the brooch in the mirror, but for Poirot to miss it for so long is almost an affront to the would-be worshipper.  Still, better a bad Christie than a good average.

Spectator (30th July 1937): Dumb Witness is a fair-to-medium Christie.  The assumptions of Poirot seem more unwarranted than usual, but Mrs. Christie is mercifully sparing of incidental chatter, and gets on briskly with the murder in hand.  Her disregard of detail, which spoiled earlier books (c.f. The A.B.C. Murders), does no great harm here, though the flowers in the murderee’s garden do seem to bloom in a curious order.

Books (Will Cuppy, 12th September 1937, 200w): Don’t be discouraged by the slightly threadbare materials with which Mrs. Christie starts this Grade A Hercule Poirot tale…  All in all, it’s a slick job in the admirable Christie manner.

NY Times (Kay Irvin, 26th September 1937, 200w): Agatha Christie is not doing her most brilliant work in Poirot Loses a Client, but she has produced a much-better-than-average thriller nevertheless, and her plot has novelty, as it has sound mechanism, intriguing character types, and ingenuity.

John o’ London’s (Edward Shanks): Mrs. Christie at her best.

Sunday Times (Milward Kennedy): At one point in Dumb Witness I said to myself, ‘This is too easy, too obvious; this is not the real Agatha Christie.’  Need I say that I had to eat my words.

Glasgow Herald: One of Poirot’s most brilliant achievements.

Glasgow Herald: Bob, the hero of the story and one of the most agreeable dogs in fiction, is right to put in his claim to distinction.

Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon): There is nothing left for the critic but to offer his usual tribute of praise to another of Mrs. Christie’s usual successes.  She does this sort of thing so superlatively well.